Smugglers on the “frontier of civilization”

In order to better understand the events related to the Soviet aggression against Poland on September 17, 1939 and their aftermath, it’s worth recalling what the Polish-Soviet borderland – “the border of civilization” – looked like in the interwar period. Strictly guarded on both sides, it was also the site of enormous traffic of goods and people.

Polish soldiers caught the smuggler…

In the nineteen-twenties Poland was not a rich country, and the diverse ethnic composition of the eastern regions left its mark on the life of the country. Smuggling on the Polish-Soviet border flourished. The first step in combating this phenomenon was the organisation of legal trade. The Polish Ministry of the Interior proposed to organise special fairs at the border. In November 1922, by order of the Polish Minister of the Interior, the border was divided into “dead” and “mobile” sections. The legal movement of goods and citizens could take place only in the latter.

The border was guarded by the Border Protection Corps (KOP) established in 1924. The tasks of the KOP included, among others, combating the illegal movement of goods and people across the border. In 1927–1928, Polish border guards liquidated 18 smuggling gangs, and in 1929–30 – as many as 29. In 1928, the KOP detained 445 smugglers, a year later 398, in 1930 – 311, and in 1931 – 590.

KOP soldiers

The fight against smuggling in the early 1930s was no less important than the fight against the saboteurs and intelligence officers coming from the Soviet side. In the north-eastern voivodeships, in the mid-1920s, smuggling took on even industrial dimensions. In the same town of Raków, there were nine companies that provided the smugglers with the necessary goods. The Polish customs service also fought with the smugglers. One of the main customs points on the border with the Belarussian SSR was in Stołbce. In 1926, a new Customs and Post Office building was built next to the Polish railway station. One of the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express, Filipp Wejcman, recalled the course of Polish passport and customs control: “Outside the window a white building appeared again with a four-sided tower, on which you could see the white Polish eagle spreading its wings. “Gentlemen, passports, passports! Gentlemen, show your passports!”  Two Polish border guards entered the car, collecting documents from all the passengers. They spoke Russian, with no foreign accent; I didn’t hear a single word of Polish from them. Last station again: the Soviet train would not continue. Stołbce station. […] A small, well-kept station building, decorated with flower beds. The rails ran on two sides: the wide track on the one side – Soviet, and the other, narrow track – Western European. We took our luggage again and carried it to the station with the help of the porter. Polish customs control is no better than the Soviet one. Despite pleas and protests, the satirical Soviet magazine “Krokodil”. was seized from one of the passengers. After quite long customs formalities, we went through the other door of the station and got into the first-class car of a Polish train that was going to Warsaw. Polish gendarmes (KOP officers – author’s note) came and without any problems returned the checked and stamped passports to all the passengers. The train started. […] Goodbye Fatherland! ”

Soviet railway station at the boarder

Throughout the interwar period, there were, on the Polish-Soviet border, using modern parlance, “logistic centres” where smuggled goods were hidden. Polish border guards and the police hunted for these warehouses, but such actions were not always successful. Moreover, the tactics of smugglers often resembled the strategy of the secret services. The KOP documents stated that in 1933-1934 there were 118 clashes with smugglers using firearms, in 1934-1935 there were 73, and in 1937-1938 – only 52. ​​Therefore, the KOP intelligence often helped soldiers to track down smugglers. In 1935, thanks to the work of the Polish intelligence, it was possible to intercept and destroy 12 main channels of smuggling delivery. Criminal groups led by Jankiel Gelman (smuggling of pepper and cattle), Witold Galiński (smuggling of cinnamon) and Szloma Golberg (tobacco) were broken. Thanks to the help of intelligence officers, in 1936 the KOP confiscated 3 million 487 thousand smuggled zlotys; (in 1935 1 US dollar = 5,31 zlotys). At the same time, 555 “professional” smugglers and 748 “ordinary” smugglers were detained. In 1937, the KOP intelligence tracked down the Alfred Jurgilewicz gang, which smuggled saccharin on an almost industrial scale.

A separate area of ​​smuggling activity was the transfer of people across the border. Here is what was noted in the 1936 KOP report: “The cost of transporting one person ranged from 35 to 250 zlotys depending on the risk and distance from the border.” The services of such “carriers” were used both by the leaders of the Communist Party of Western Belarus fleeing repression from the Polish authorities, and by ordinary residents of the north-eastern voivodeships of the Second Polish Republic, looking for a better life “in the Soviets”.


Vests used by smugglers

Many inhabitants of the borderland near Zasław remember the activities of smugglers. This is how Mikołaj Taratuta, an inhabitant of the village of Powiazin, told it: “Unfortunately, we lived poorly. That’s why we had to walk across the border and deal with smuggling. Many people went to the Soviets, succumbing to the propaganda that life was good there. But after all, many also came to Poland from the Belarusian SSR. Many made money by guiding people. There were those who knew the border crossings well and avoided the ambushes of the border guards. As for smuggling, they carried clothes and vodka to the Byelorussian SSR, and they smuggled matches and gold from the Soviets.”

Home-distilled vodka was a serious problem for the Polish authorities. Its smuggling was particularly common in the Vilnius voivodeship. In order to fight moonshiners, the KOP organised joint actions with the police. In 1935, soldiers revealed 24 secret distilleries producing illegal alcohol, as well as 28 cases of its sale. 126 people were detained during a special operation. The following year, 100 distilleries were destroyed. At the same time, 194 people were detained. The smugglers even carried grain to the USSR.

In the interwar period, KOP soldiers had to fight smugglers not only on the Polish-Soviet border, but also on the border with Latvia, East Prussia, Romania and Lithuania. In the latter case, the situation was very difficult, as the goods smuggled from Kaunas and Klaipeda reached not only Grodno, Lida or Baranowicze, but even Warsaw. Polish authorities understood that the popularity of smuggling in the eastern provinces was due to the difficult economic situation in the region. Until the outbreak of World War II, however, Warsaw failed to solve the problem of the illegal movement of goods on its eastern border.

Ihar Menikau

PhD of Historical Sciences,

Zasław, Belarus

Photos: public domain

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